Sometime ago an article was published in the Record that expounded the privileges that come with a Williams education. The author made what seemed to many a bewildering claim. He seemed to assert that with this privilege unfolds a certain responsibility to our species and our planet; an obligation that should not be taken for granted. His statements about privilege and responsibility were all really interesting, but how could this be when Darwin and my ECON 101 professor both insist that individuals live for themselves? This business about “survival of the fittest” and “maximizing utility” is supposed to be elementary, right?
Well, I’m not some intellectual, so I don’t really know what’s up with Darwin and that economics professor, and I’m not going to attempt any academic argument against them. However, I do know one thing: the way some individuals in our society live their lives, especially that part of society that Williams and those other elite schools supply, is undoubtedly and mercilessly destroying the environment and the lives of many people around the world.
I’m not really saying anything profound here. I’m simply making explicit that which most of us already know and are sometimes a bit uncomfortable with. I mean, we all know that sweatshops exist and we just perpetuate them with our greed and mass consumerism. We all know that driving a car just brings the Earth’s ecosystem a little closer to hell. We all know that we are supporting a government that is starving innocent people all over the world (Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan, Serbia, etc.).
We all know that many people on this campus are completely opposed to same-sex partners and get grossed out by the idea and wouldn’t give a second thought to a member of the queer community. We all know there are many folks on and off our campus that truly believe black folks are dumber than white folks and should be treated as such.
We all know that leaving pounds of leftover food on our dining room plates both deprives many people around the globe of that same food and adds to the degradation of our environment. We all know that using three or four napkins at each meal instead of washable cloth adds to the degradation of the environment. We all know that many of us are driven by the will to be rich and successful without regard to those who don’t share these privileges nor have any hope of obtaining these privileges. And we know there is nothing wrong with what we have.
Nonetheless, we are so privileged, so protected, that the fact we don’t have to worry about anything but ourselves and are immediate surroundings blinds us. Even those of us who aren’t privileged by birth are blinded by what we have obtained at Williams. We are here at Williams to position ourselves in order that we may “maximize our utility.” That’s it.
A lot of us at Williams grew up with a dreamy and privileged life before coming here. A life full of birthday parties with our friends, trips with our families, summer camps, nice cars and more. Some of us didn’t have a lot of this growing up. As Williams College students, however, we all have an unbelievable amount of privilege (I know this for a fact because of the little privilege that I had before coming to Williams) and we will continue to have this privilege as Williams alums (check out the OCC). This includes everything from our mansion-like dorms, to the three meals a day, to the $15,000 SAC concerts, to the millions of wonderful future opportunities that open up just because we are Williams students (including those $55,000 a year consulting and I-banking jobs not open to non-selective schools).
However, from the three and a half years that I have lived this fortunate life it has become clear to me that these privileges are the blinding lights that obscure our understanding and compassion for life beyond our own. We are trained to worry about ourselves and better our lives. While we are living our privileged lives; the blind exploitation of this privilege is destroying the environment and the lives of many people around the world. For example, how many of you know that Nike, Gap, Wal-Mart, Tommy Hilfiger, The Limited, J. Crew and Polo Ralph Lauren have been accused of operating sweatshops or have settled claims for operating sweatshops? How many of you know that the clothes you are wearing might be stained by the blood and sweat of a little girl who lost her finger sewing that shirt and working 60 hours a week in the harshest conditions? How many of you care? How about that last dining hall meal? How many paper napkins did you use? How much food did you throw away?
I can keep blabbing about how bad we all are. I mean, I own a Gap leather jacket, Nike shoes, I’ve shopped at Wal-Mart and I drive cars on a regular basis. Hence, I’m not saying we should all go out and become the next Mother Teresa or Gandhi (even though I won’t stop you if you so desire). I’m not even suggesting that we should all work for non-profits and NGOs. Instead, I’m simply begging that we show a little mercy and compassion for our environment and those helpless folks around the world whose lives we affect on a daily basis. I’m just asking that you take a look in the mirror the next time you are thinking about shopping at Wal-Mart or the next time you think about ordering something from that J. Crew catalogue. Give consideration to that 13 year-old boy’s life that was destroyed making you that wonderful Gap leather jacket. At least think twice before buying your next Gap item or your next pair of Nike shoes.
All I’m suggesting is that a little compassion and selflessness can go a long way. Whether we like it or not the lives of many people and the health of the environment rest on our backs simply because we are wealthy consumers (by third world standards-even those of us on financial aid) and even more importantly because we are Williams students – the supposed future leaders of this world.